Immigrants vote in their first presidential election
Paulina Kumeh of Oklahoma City will be among the new U.S. citizens across the state who will be voting in their first presidential election on Tuesday.
The Liberian native, 55, had to overcome numerous obstacles on her path to citizenship — namely that she couldn't read or write when she arrived in the U.S. in 2004.
"It's exciting to be a part of this society and to make this decision. I feel so good about it," Kumeh said.
Immigrants Luis Garcia Buchard and Sara Palomino voiced similar views.
"I already voted and it feels so good. I was waiting in a line for five and a half hours in the cold on Thursday (for early voting)," said Palomino, a Mexico native who lives in Edmond. "I feel so proud. It was a long journey to become a citizen and voting, it is the cherry on top."
Kumeh, Palomino and Buchard received help from many sources including The Immigration Center at a west Oklahoma City church. Leaders there and those at several other resource hubs for immigrants said gaining the right to vote is one of the main reasons most immigrants want to attain citizenship.
Arlita Harris is volunteer coordinator at the center, an affiliate organization of The Fellowship at Western Oaks, a Nazarene church at 7901 NW 16.
She said most immigrants she has worked with have had their green cards for decades, and an opportunity to vote is what eventually compels them to begin the naturalization process in earnest.
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"Those immigrants who have been naturalized in the past three years are very excited about voting and are serious about the choices they are making. Most want the experience of standing in line on election day to cast their ballots," Harris said.
She said the pandemic and a backlog of cases at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services meant many people who applied for citizenship as much as a year ago won't get the opportunity to vote in Tuesday's election because they have not yet had their naturalization ceremonies.
Buchard and his family came to the U.S. from Honduras in 2014. He said he's grateful that the factors mentioned by Harris didn't hinder his quest for citizenship. He became a U.S. citizen in August 2019 before the global pandemic.
Like Palomino, Buchard said he also voted early, but he cast an absentee ballot and mailed it in.
"It was for me one of the most important events in my life here in the U.S. I felt very honored to do that, and it's a big responsibility at the same time," he said.
Buchard, an Oklahoma City resident, is currently giving back to other immigrants who once walked in his shoes. He is a citizenship instructor at The Immigration Center, helping students prepare for their final citizenship interview.
As for Kumeh, she is thrilled to be at the precipice of voting in her first presidential election because of everything she had to overcome to get to this moment. She said she didn't learn to read and write in her Liberian village because education was deemed only for men. Kumeh said some girls got the opportunity to learn, but only those who were wealthy and she was not.
Arriving in the U.S. with her husband (they are now divorced), she eventually participated in various literacy programs to learn to read and write, got a job and her adult children helped her learn how to drive. Kumeh said once she obtained her driver's license and could drive herself around, she began the naturalization process.
She proudly became a U.S. citizen this summer and realized she would get her chance to cast a vote in the U.S. presidential election for the first time.
"I am making my own contribution to society. Maybe my story will inspire someone else to get their citizenship," Kumeh said.
Immigrants are 'well-educated voters'
The Rev. Nathan Hedge, senior minister of May Avenue Wesleyan Church, and the Rev. Eric Costanzo, senior pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa, echoed Harris' comments about the importance of voting among new citizens.
Hedge works with many immigrants at the Immigration Connection, a ministry of his south Oklahoma City church that provides legal help to immigrants in the metro area.
"In the last year, we've seen a lot of people filing for citizenship," Hedge said. "In just kind of in casual conversation, we'll say what is it that you're looking forward to the most about being a citizen and the overwhelming response is being able to vote."
Costanzo said his Tulsa church's international and refugee ministry works to help many immigrants who come to Oklahoma from a variety of countries. He said his church has helped Burmese Christians, in particular, along with other groups in need of English as a Second Language classes and other advocacy aid on behalf of immigrants. The pastor said more than 30 churches are represented in this ministry.
Costanzo said a lot of immigrants in Oklahoma are very well educated voters and can have in-depth discussions on many relevant issues.
"They want the United States to continue to be a great place to live," he said.
And they are not monolithic.
"People might be surprised that they fall on both side of the (political) aisle. And many would tend to reflect the voting tendencies of most Oklahomans. For many of them, their faith informs that. They are a biblically motivated voting bloc," Costanzo said.